Published Online: February 12, 1997

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States Seek School Jobs for Welfare Clients

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As states search for ways to put welfare recipients to work, some social-service departments are hoping to find successful placements for their clients in the public schools.

The question, however, is whether these positions will lead to long-term employment.

In Frederick, Md., parents on welfare are being offered unpaid internships in their children's schools through a partnership between the Frederick County school district and the Frederick County Department of Social Services. Positions include clerical assistants, tutors, custodial assistants, and food-service workers. Welfare recipients who don't have children in school can seek positions in the district's administrative offices.

The goal of the Maryland program and others like it is to give those on welfare work experience while getting them more involved in their children's education.

"It's really a pretty significant parent-volunteer program," said R. Daniel Cunningham Jr., the assistant to the superintendent of the Frederick County schools.

In Chicago, more than 450 welfare recipients with children in the city's schools are earning $6 an hour tutoring preschool-age children who are on waiting lists for the federally funded Head Start program or other prekindergarten classes.

The parent-tutor-mentors, or PTMs, are assigned to work with three neighborhood families. They visit the children one hour a day, three days a week, using lesson plans that encourage language, social, and motor-skills development and focus on such topics as colors, numbers, shapes, different occupations, and good manners.

"A lot of people have hesitations about welfare moms," said Kimberly Muhammad-Earl, a director of special projects for the Chicago public schools. "This is a group that people traditionally said are apathetic and lazy, but they have shown a good success rate with their families."

So far, 1,300 children in 749 families have received services.

Training Also Provided

The new federal welfare law, which took effect last Oct. 1, requires most people on public assistance to find employment. The law also set a maximum five-year lifetime limit on welfare, meaning it's in the best interest of those on welfare now to look for jobs that can support them and their families in the future.

School officials in Frederick County already are thinking about that. "As vacancies in the system would occur, [the interns] would be as eligible as any other person to apply," Mr. Cunningham said.

The agreement between the county agency and the Maryland school district also states that as space becomes available, the workers will be able to take computer courses or other skill-building classes offered by the system.

Those in Chicago's Parents As Teachers First program attend training courses once a week. Ms. Muhammad-Earl also works with junior colleges in the city to establish courses for the PTMs in child development.

Next school year, the program will be expanded to the high school level, where the parents will help pregnant teenagers find the information they need to take good care of themselves and their infants.

Though working only 12 hours a week as a PTM doesn't meet the minimum 20-hour requirement set by the federal law, the hours the workers spend in training also count, Ms. Muhammad-Earl said.

No Employees Displaced

Principals and other supervisors in Frederick County don't have to use the interns if they don't want to, Mr. Cunningham said.

Officials there were quick to address any questions about displacement that might be raised by the district's employees, and union representatives were involved in discussions about the project.

In New York City, where discussions are taking place on how to best utilize welfare recipients, union leaders say they aren't opposed to those on public assistance working in the schools, as long as certain conditions are met.

The workers should be trained for their positions, and the program should be linked to a career ladder so that the welfare recipients can eventually move into permanent positions, said Ana Marengo, a spokeswoman with the United Federation of Teachers.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a champion of private-sector welfare-to-work programs, made waves in 1995 when he proposed using welfare recipients as lunchroom workers and recess monitors. Education groups denounced the plan, saying it would create logistical and safety problems. ("N.Y.C. Teachers Turn Down 5-Year Contract," Dec. 13, 1995.)

But opposition has softened somewhat, and there are now some New York welfare recipients working in school kitchens. Using the workers as lunchroom monitors is another possibility, but some parents have objected to the idea, saying that the workers would not be properly trained to maintain order.

The school system plans to put some workers on lunch duty on a pilot basis in neighborhoods where there hasn't been any opposition, according to Karen Crowe, a district spokeswoman.

If structured well--with specific responsibilities, proper supervision, and regular feedback--these positions can be successful, especially for those who have no other work experience, said Mark Greenberg, a senior staff lawyer with the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy.

Schools, however, "should not be turned into an employment agency," said Jane Hannaway, a co-director of the education program at the Urban Institute in Washington.

Mr. Cunningham of the Frederick County, Md., schools said districts like his are breaking new ground. He said that he doesn't know how many schools or interns will participate but that he expects it will be a large number.

"I'm real excited, but I'm also sort of walking real slow," Mr. Cunningham said. "I think it's the right thing to do."

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